State boosts benefits for low-income shoppers at farmers markets

The Vineyard Farmers Market
The Vineyard Farmers Market

Access to healthy, fresh produce just got a little easier for thousands of low-income Californians, thanks to funding for a program that doubles their purchasing power at farmers markets.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent approval of the state budget includes $5 million for the California Nutrition Incentives Act. The new funding allows the state to take advantage of matching federal funds to expand California’s Market Match program.

Market Match works by providing state-assistance recipients with matching funds when they spend their benefits on fruits and vegetables at the state’s farmers markets.

For example, for every $10 in benefits spent, the customer will receive an additional $10 to spend on fresh produce.

Healthy food advocates applauded the new funding.

“With this funding, the state of California has put its money where its mouth is in terms of supporting healthy eating for low-income families,” says Ecology Center executive director Martin Bourque.

“The demand for Market Match has consistently outstripped the supply of funds. The additional $5 million will allow us to expand the program toward our goal of offering Market Match at every farmers market in the state.”

Not only is Market Match a benefit for low-income customers, it’s also been good for small farmers. A recent survey found that 81 percent of farmers participating in the program have seen an increase in sales.

Felix Muzquiz, manager of the Vineyard Farmers Market in Fresno, said that a majority of the farmers at her market accept the electronic benefit transfer card, commonly known as EBT, to access the Market Match benefits.

“The program has really made a difference in people’s lives,” Muzquiz said. “It has given people the ability to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, and it’s a great way for the federal government to put some money into the farmers’ pockets.”

Muzquiz estimates the market generates $2,000 to $4,000 in Market Match spending.

“When we started this in 2013 we had just a few farmers sign on,” Muzquiz said. “But now, when they see how it works, the response has been very good.”

A year ago the program received a $3.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program. A preliminary evaluation of the program shows it is on track to connect 240,000 shoppers with 2,200 of the state’s small farms and stimulating $9.8 million in produce sales.

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob